Alex Massie

An American PMQs?

Text settings

Peter Suderman endorses the idea that life in Washington would be considerably improved if the American president were subjected to some kind of equivalent of Prime Ministers' Question in the House of Commons. By life, I mean, of course, the quality of political entertainment. And given the dreary nature of most of what happens on the Hill - or in the White House Rose Garden for that matter - one can see why many Americans find the idea appealing.

And yet, it's hard to see quite how any American equivalent would work. PMQs is not, it should be said, quite what many Americans think it is. That is to say, it is more a matter of style than substance. As someone who thinks politics could do with more, not less, heckling and cheering and booing I'm quite in favour of this. But one ought not to pretend that the weekly interrogation is designed to shed much light upon the government's latest imbecility.

On the one hand, you have the government's back-benchers asking planted questions along the lines of: "Does my Right Honourable friend agree that he his handling of this latest crisis has set an example that is the envy of the world and does he further agree that the party opposite have no answers to this or any other issue and that, not to put too fine a point on it, they also propose taking away ponies from every child in the country. Will the Prime Minister assure the House that he is the best man for the job and will he also remind the country that we on this side of the House are the only party that is, and always has been, pro-pony?" And on the other, of course, you have opposition MPs just trying to look smart. This too normally produces groans.

Nonetheless, the knockabout does serve a purpose in as much as it pits the Prime Minister against the man (or woman) who would seek to replace him were an election held the following week. As such, it's great fun for the Westminster village, pundits and bloggers. Who is up? More importantly, who is down? How much this tells anyone about which leader is better-equipped to actually govern the country is a moot point. But the entertainment comes from the fact that the PM is up against the fellow who wants to take his job. That gives it a pleasingly personal edge, but also makes it rather harder to see how an American version would work.

That said, if the US were to do this, I would suggest the President* be required to appear before a joint Congressional committee one afternoon a month to answer questions from members. The leaders in the House and Senate could be joined by 6 Republicans and 6 Democrats, chosen by lot, who would each have 10 minutes to question the President. Importantly nay, crucially, no opening statements would be permitted.

Even so, because the US ain't a parliamentary system, you're not going to have fun and games of this sort. That is, moments in which the leader of the opposition can make the sitting Prime Minister appear a rare old chump and, in the process, help change the way in which both men are perceived. And that, of course, is also why no US President will countenance endangering himself in this manner.

It might also be said that PMQs encourages a certain coarseness in politics and that, while often entertaining, it can also at times, also be something akin to seeing a kitten devoured by a pack of hyenas. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, of course.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articlePoliticswestminster